Parents, back off! Let kids learn the hard way

When my son Brandon was in first grade, he told me there was a new kid at school named Derek, and all the teachers were bragging about him. Although Brandon had yet to meet Derek, word on the blacktop had it he was a bona fide brownnoser!

“Do you know Derek’s last name?” I asked my son.

“Yes,” Brandon responded, “It’s Eretz, Derek Eretz.”

As you may have already guessed, Derek Eretz was representing derech eretz, a Hebrew phrase most commonly associated with the act of showing politeness and concern for other people and the environment. About a week prior to Derek’s debut, it turns out, my son’s Jewish day school kicked off a formal Derech Eretz educational program that called for teachers to hold daily discussions about the respectful behavior of Derech (a.k.a. Derek) Eretz.

As Brandon’s school wisely acknowledged, it’s among our greatest responsibilities as Jewish adults to teach the next generation about derech eretz. There is, however, a less-known side to this familiar phrase — its literal meaning — which may likely be as rich a parenting resource as its common colloquial counterpart. Because the latter gets far more press, the remainder of this column will explore the largely untapped, hugely underrated literal side to derech eretz.

Derech eretz translates concretely as the “way of the land” or the fundamental relationship of cause and effect that exists between living organisms and their environments. For the vast majority of the animal kingdom, learning the laws of derech eretz is considered Survival 101. Take the case of the stick bug of the rainforest.

The stick bug is a bug that looks a whole lot like a stick. (I’m not claiming to be an entomologist here!) When the stick bug was just a baby branch he would waltz his wooden legs anywhere he darn well pleased. But one day, during a leisurely stroll across a hot pink bromeliad, that carefree stick bug had a terrifying, yet enlightening near-death experience with a hungry toucan. Suddenly those silly rainforest rules of derech eretz that Mama and Papa Stick Bug used to ramble on about didn’t seem so silly anymore (especially the one about bugs with sticks for legs having as much chance of outrunning flying predators as sloths do jaguars). Empowered with a newfound understanding of the way the jungle worked, the stick bug devised an ingenious Plan B. Namely, camouflaging himself on a tree branch and refraining from moving a muscle for the majority of his long, blissful life.

Like the stick bug, virtually every member of Mother Nature’s Multicellular Club has learned to appreciate and embrace the awesome potency of derech eretz. Every member, that is, except the modern-day parent: A well-meaning yet perplexing creature characterized by an erroneous/pseudoegotistical philosophy that her offspring will fail to find their way in life unless an adult member of the species micromanages every step of the journey. She consequently devotes her existence to serving as an intermediary between her children and the laws of derech eretz.

The modern-day parent may be spotted hovering over her young — eraser in hand — while they’re doing their homework; clandestinely adding elaborate borders to their book reports; shouting strategic reminders from the sidelines of baseball games; and organizing playdates with the fervor of Julie, “The Love Boat” cruise director.

Unfortunately, the micromanagerial habits of the modern-day parent can be counterproductive, resulting in her children being denied many of life’s most basic and essential lessons. Clearly, this curious creature has yet to learn that no matter how many times she tells her kids not to touch a hot stove, or academic tutors tell her kids not to touch a hot stove, or baseball, soccer, piano and tennis coaches tell her kids not to touch a hot stove, the only way her kids will really learn not to touch a hot stove is by trying it — and finding out that it hurts like heck!

Calm down, my fellow modern-day parents, that was only a metaphorical example. I’m not suggesting that we allow our kids to go around getting third-degree burns for the sake of a learning experience. The point is that in derech eretz — in life’s natural cause-and-effect relationships — we have a parenting ally, not a malevolent force from which we must obsessively shield our offspring.

An ally who guarantees that stubborn kids who refuse to wear jackets to school learn a lesson while freezing their tushies off at recess. An ally who ensures that children who ignore parental reminders to study for spelling tests receive poor grades. An ally who reassures us that in letting our kids take an occasional fall, we ultimately teach them to stand up, brush themselves off and rejoin the game … wiser and stronger. And an ally who reminds us that our mission in parenting is not to raise children who fly because we tell them when, where and how to flap their wings, but because they have the confidence, competence and stamina to soar independently.

So Brandon, how ’bout giving Ole Derek “Goody-Two-Shoes” Eretz a second chance? He could probably teach us all a thing or two about respect, mitzvot and finding our way on the bumpy blacktop of life.

Sharon Estroff is an award-winning educator and author of a nationally syndicated parenting column.